Network executives are fond of cavalierly cancelling potential hit shows after just two or three episodes if those shows aren’t immediate smashes. Rather than developing a show, they impatiently toss it aside and usually replace it with something even worse. They might want to take a page from The Facts of Life series that ran on NBC from 1979-1988.
Many of the biggest sitcoms of the 1970s and 1980s were spinoffs. They included Maude (from All In The Family); The Jeffersons (All In The Family); Good Times (All In The Family by way of Maude) and LaVerne and Shirley (Happy Days). These were immediate hits. However, one show that was a spinoff and took some time to develop was The Facts of Life.
Spun off from Diff’rent Strokes, which starred the late Gary Coleman, The Facts of Life struggled in its first year, ranked 74th with a 4.5 Nielsen rating. The show’s connection to Diff’rent Strokes was through Charlotte Rae, who played Edna Garrett, the housekeeper of the Drummond family. She left Diff’rent Strokes to become the housemother at the Eastland School, an exclusive boarding academy for girls near Peekskill, New York. The first episodes had Mrs. Garrett in a starring role, but it soon became apparent that the strength of the show would be scripts that revolved around the girls, and that Mrs. Garrett would best serve as an adult presence who was instilling values into the girls.
Of the seven girls in the original cast, two stood out above and beyond the others. One was Kim Fields who played Tootie Ramsey. She got all the punch lines related to being a nosy gossip, to being the youngest, and to being the lone African American in the cast. The other immediate star was Lisa Whelchel who played the rich, spoiled, self-centered Blair Warner.
The first season of The Facts of Life occurred during the time the T&A show Three’s Company was the top-rated program on the air. During the first four episodes, The Facts of Life seemed to seek opportunities to parade Blair across the room in shorts. The show was intended to be a summer replacement series but the network decided to bring it back. After a six-month hiatus, from September 1979 to March 1980, the show returned. When it did, Blair was no longer wearing shorts and selling Three’s Company ideas. The person playing Blair, Lisa Whelchel, was a committed born-again Christian and obviously she and her religious family did not want her trying to be a teenaged version of Suzanne Somers. What the show finally discovered was that Lisa was an outstanding comedic talent, great at facial expressions, slapstick and subtle humor. She later became adroit at self-effacing humor and her character Blair became one of the funniest characters on television. She was especially good in scenes where she could play off Tootie, such as in the sixth episode, entitled Emily Dickinson, in which a preoccupied Blair runs out of time to write an original poem and so plagiarizes a poem, and Tootie gets Blair to do her chores in return for the blabbermouth Tootie’s not telling on her. This was the best episode of the 13-episode first year.
A show ranked 74 would be yanked off the air today. But in 1980 NBC decided to be patient and develop the show. Since it was too unwieldy to have seven girls in the regular cast, the show was overhauled by dropping four girls from the cast, including Molly Ringwald, who went on to bigger and better things, starring in several John Hughes films about middle-class teenage angst. As the two outstanding members of the cast, Blair and Tootie were retained, as was Natalie Greene, the chubby wise-cracking girl played by Mindy Cohn. Nancy McKeon was brought in to play Jo, a tough but sensitive kid from the city who could attend a prestigious and expensive school like Eastland only through having a scholarship. Jo was brought on to provide contrast to Blair and to touch off conflict. The idea worked so well that in its second season The Facts of Life sprang up to number 26 in the rankings with a 19.3 rating. Mrs. Garrett became the school dietician but continued to watch over the adventures of the girls. The theme song was also updated and improved with a more rock-oriented sound. Because the network was patient with the show, it now had a bona fide hit on its hands.
Season three was the best year for the show, with a string of brilliantly written, hilarious episodes, including the Four Musketeer episode that featured the famous paint-fight scene. The show reached its highest rating at number 24 with a 19.1 share. After a wonderful fourth season, Blair and Jo graduated from high school. The show needed to be revamped again, so Mrs. Garrett left her job at Eastland to open Edna’s Edibles, a gourmet food shop. The girls all found excuses to move in with her again and the show continued to be a ratings winner.
The show also provided a stepping stone for George Clooney, who spent a season on the show, as well as providing guest-starring roles for future stars such as Helen Hunt.
We live in an increasingly disposable society and scripted shows that come on the air today are given precious little time to develop an audience. A great illustration of this is Romantically Challenged, starring Alyssa Milano. The show premiered in the spring of 2010 and was given a great lead-in, slotted right after Dancing With The Stars. But after two or three episodes it was unceremoniously yanked off the air. If you start with a star like Milano, who has a proven track record of being a part of successful series, and you make the commitment to put the show on after a highly-rated program, why not stick with the show for a while and give it a chance to take hold? The nine years of The Facts of Life demonstrate what might happen if a show is only given a decent chance.
Ratings History, The Facts of Life, http://www.televisionhits.com/factsoflife/
Total Television, Alex McNeil, Penguin Books, 1991
The Complete First and Second Seasons, The Facts of Life, DVD, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
The Complete Third Season, The Facts of Life, DVD, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
The Complete Fourth Season, The Facts of Life, DVD, Shout Factory